Monday concludes the 86th regular session, meaning that it’s time for lawmakers to go home and for the public to grade their work. So let’s take stock of the good, the bad and the unfinished of the last 140 days.
Assuming deals hold and no vetoes happen, the best thing to come out of this legislative session is property tax relief. Preliminary estimates peg the tax relief package at more than $5 billion, meaning that struggling homeowners and businesses will finally get some long-overdue help.
A close second is property tax reform. The rollback tax rate was reduced from 8 percent to 3.5 percent for cities and counties, and lowered to 2.5 percent for school districts. This important change will help protect people’s tax relief from getting eaten up by appraisal gains. The old, clunky petition process was also replaced with an automatic election requirement, meaning that local officials will now have to explain the need for big tax increases.
Another positive development was the statewide eradication of forced annexation. In 2017, lawmakers gave some Texans the right to vote before being annexed by a city. This time, lawmakers extended that opportunity to all property owners. That brings a swift end to a tyrannical policy.
Other encouraging legislation includes bills to strengthen the Public Information Act, reconstitute the Open Meetings Act, reshape the local debt landscape for the better, make an income tax almost impossible, curtail city overregulation of building materials, and legalize kids’ lemonade stands.
It’s not all good news though.
Lawmakers failed to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying, an appallingly bad practice that permits local officials to spend public money to lobby for more public money. The practice cost $41 million in 2017 and regularly contributes to the defeat of prominent conservative initiatives.
Too, lawmakers balked at passing legislation to prevent cities from telling employers how to run their businesses. That’s left many small business owners exposed to intrusive policies like mandatory paid sick leave, predictive scheduling and “ban the box” measures limiting when employers can ask job applicants if they’ve had any prior arrests.
Lastly, the state budget spends too much. At the start of session, the Conservative Texas Budget coalition urged lawmakers to limit the growth of the state’s new two-year budget to population and inflation, which are expected to increase by a combined 8 percent over the biennium. It looks like lawmakers will miss that mark, although the budget’s final details are still being fleshed out and the governor has line-item veto authority.
There’s also a bit of unfinished business.
School finance reform was supposed to be this session’s major accomplishment, and in some ways it is. The primary legislative vehicle, House Bill 3, creates a new incentive pay system, requires school districts to submit to an efficiency audit before raising taxes, and reduces recapture. But truly transformational change, i.e. school choice, is missing. A handful of high-profile concerns also went by the wayside. For instance, school districts can still build water parks and golf courses while administrative bloat remains an issue. Which is to say, there’s still more work to be done here.
All of these things together are something of a mixed bag. It’s undeniable that lawmakers did a lot of good this session, especially on the local government front. But there were some notable missteps and missed opportunities too. Particularly on the matter of taxpayer-funded lobbying.
However you weigh and measure this session, the fact is that it’s over. Which means that now is the time to start planning for the next one.